Becoming Sustainability Natives The Obama Children Attend an Innovative Green School

First daughters Malia and Sasha Obama may be part of a new generation of “sustainability natives.” The term refers to those “who think and do naturally” what their parents will always find a bit unusual, according to Rachel Gutter, senior manager of the school sector for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In January the Obama children enrolled in D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School, immersing themselves in cutting-edge green facilities.

In September 2006, Sidwell’s middle school was the first to receive a Platinum rating from the USGBC. The school wanted to integrate environmental stewardship into teaching and life, in keeping with Sidwell’s Quaker philosophy.

“Stewardship is a central principle for Quakers,” says Michael Saxenian, assistant head of school and CFO.

Environmental stewardship pervades every aspect of Sidwell’s middle school, which 10-year-old Malia attends. The windows are positioned to flood the building with natural light while cutting down glare, and to lower heating and air conditioning costs. Natural ventilation and chemical-free construction materials ensure fresh air. Other features include a constructed wetlands, a lush, living roof with glass solar chimneys, a biology pond, photovoltaic panels, and cork and bamboo furnishings. The building uses “55% to 60% less energy than a standard-code building” Saxenian says.

Green features at Sidwell Friends School include a green roof. © Sidwell Friends School

These innovative features allow teachers to “incorporate the school itself, and green features, into the curriculum,” explains Gutter. “We’ve made systems within the building visible throughout,” says Saxenian. And students can track the school’s energy use and carbon dioxide levels online.

Constructed wetlands on campus teach water cycling as they filter and return “black” water to the toilets and cooling system. “That is a really powerful teaching tool,” says Saxenian; “It turns the out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality around,” and stimulates discussion of the nutrient cycle. According to Gutter, the plans for the wetlands went through a “rigorous process with the D.C. City Council” to gain approval. “I think the idea of on-site waste treatment raised a few eyebrows at first,” she says.

The building stimulates students in many ways. An eighth-grade science project involving a species census led students to discover a dozen bee species, four of them never before found in the District of Columbia. Such biodiversity, explains Saxenian, was likely enhanced by the many native plantings on the school’s grounds. Students also grow herbs on the green roof that are then used in cafeteria food. And one student team built a model solar car patterned after the roof’s solar panels.

Sidwell’s lower school building, which 7-year-old Sasha attends, has many of the same features, and is expected to receive a Gold rating shortly. Sidwell did not seek a Platinum rating for the lower school on purpose. While planners thought of the first building as “an opportunity to make a big statement in the nation’s capital and help other schools move in the same direction,” the lower building has a different purpose, where “every choice is both environmentally and financially responsible,” explains Saxenian. “Along with stewardship, simplicity is a core Quaker value, one embodied in the lower school.

Stone walls reclaimed from a 19th century barn, wood cladding reclaimed from wine casks and a trickling filter that also serves as an interpretive kiosk describing the wastewater treatment process.© Sidwell Friends School

One recent Sidwell graduate, Ben Wessel, is currently an environmental leader at Middlebury College. Wessel reflects that attending Sidwell at the dawn of the green building age created “a palpable change in the entire student body.” Students “recognized that every part of life can be modified to have a very small footprint.”

Gutter hopes that these lessons will spread. “I firmly believe that the Obama girls attending Sidwell Friends will be the best thing that has ever happened to green schools in this country,” she says. Not because of the media coverage, but because the children will “communicate these real-life lessons in sustainability to their parents.”

Green features at Sidwell Friends School include a green roof (above), stone walls reclaimed from a 19th century barn, wood cladding reclaimed from wine casks and a trickling filter (left) that also serves as an interpretive kiosk describing the wastewater treatment process.